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Full text of "The Gay Genius"

138                               THE GAY GENIUS

All his life Su Tungpo took part at courtesans' dinners, and nine
times out of ten had to write poems on shawls or fans by request of
the entertainers.

"Oh, hush the night, each minute an ounce of gold,
While faindy floats the music of flute and song.
So fragrant the air, so cool the moonlit courtyard,
While darkly glides the silent night along."

Su wrote many sentimental poems about women, but he never wrote
erotic poetry, as his friend Huang Tingchien did.

The Sung courtesans had popularised a new form of poetry, the
tse, and Su Tungpo mastered it and transformed it from a metre for
sentimental poetry of the lovelorn into a vehicle fit to express any
thought or sentiment in his breast. One of his best tse was on the "Red
Cliff", whose theme was the passing of great ancient warriors. Li Po
and Tu Fu had sung three centuries earlier, and by their genius had
made the Tang quatrain and double quatrain the regular verse patterns
for a distinguished host of imitators. But these quatrain forms, uni-
formly of five or seven words to the line, with the inevitable two
couplets in the middle, had become stereotyped. Every poet tried to
evolve a new style. But the last nuance in observation of a waterfall
or an egret or die shadows of willow trees had been discovered, and
somehow the richness and emotional intensity of the Tang poets were
gone. What was more serious, even poetic diction had become a repeti-
tion of hackneyed metaphors. Some of them were bad in themselves-
to begin with. Su Tungpo wrote in a preface to one of his poems on
snow that he was determined not to use the word salt. After all, snow
was a better word. The themes of Tang poetry had been overplayed,
and the language too often deliberately harked back to lines by other
poets, giving a secret delight to the learned reader who knew where
that particular twist of thought and expression came from. It was the
tracing of the expressions to their obscure sources that gave the greatest
opportunity for the "commentators" to display their pedantry. As a
rule, writers of the so-called commentaries on collected poems did not
consider it part of their duty to elucidate the meaning or judge th*g
quality of the poem, but contented themselves with pointing out the!
source of a particular expression.

The liberation of poetry from decadent inertia always came from
Ae growth of a new form of poems popularised by the courtesans.
The language was fresh and new, the Sung tse was closer to the ver-
nacular than Tang poems, and the later Yuan drama was still closer to
Ae vernacular than Sung tse. The tse was nothing but a song written
to a given piece of music. People did not "write" tse, they "filled in"